BY MICHAEL P. CAPOZIELLO
The fire service is full of traditions and rituals. Many are familiar to firefighters across the country; others are regional or observed by individual departments. A ritual common in my department is to place mass cards memorializing the deaths of firefighters or loved ones inside the plastic holder attached to the inside of most dress uniform hats. I remember going to my first funeral as a firefighter wearing my class A, or dress, uniform for the first time and watching a senior member taking a mass card and slipping it into the underside of his hat, adding to the collection that was already there. When I asked him what he was doing, he responded, “It is something we do.”
Through the years, I started my own collection of cards. To this day, every time I put on my dress uniform, the cards in my hat remind me of the responsibilities I have as a firefighter wearing this uniform. They remind me to be ever vigilant in my actions, as the image the uniform portrays is bigger than I may realize. I have no doubt that if any of the individuals “in my hat” were here today, they would give me a swift kick in the behind if I did not show respect to the firefighters I represent and to the oath I took many years ago.
As firefighters, we have other uniforms that the public will see besides the dress uniforms we wear for official functions. We have our turnout gear for doing our jobs on the fireground as well as our civilian “uniforms” that consist of the many T-shirts and jackets we have collected through the years and wear with pride. Like it or not, your actions while wearing any one of these uniforms reflect on all firefighters everywhere, not only on you and your department. No matter what uniform you may be wearing, you should never disgrace the fire service and what those uniforms represent. We owe it to the members who have traveled the roads we now travel, to the customers we protect and serve, and to each other to conduct ourselves in the admirable and professional manner expected of us when wearing these uniforms.
As volunteer firefighters, we should be particularly mindful of these uniforms. Volunteer firefighters truly are neighbors helping neighbors. We represent our communities as well as the fire departments in which we serve. As community volunteers, we are not getting into our cars after a shift and driving five townships away to our homes in other fire districts. Act like a fool in one of your uniforms, and it’s quite possible you may run into that same person who witnessed the act later that same day at the deli, on line at the pharmacy, or sitting next to you during parent-teacher night conferences. Far worse than an awkward re-encounter with someone is a scenario in which the stupid act ends up in a video clip shown on the six o’clock news or that appears on some social media site where it can gain some bad press quickly. According to PCMAG.com, 90 percent of Americans own a cell phone, and 50 percent of all mobile subscribers own a smartphone. That’s a lot of technology and “social media eyes” out there capable of documenting our every move.
Let’s look at some of the negative situations that can develop while wearing our uniforms that may impact the public’s opinion of firefighters. This is by no means a complete list. You probably can add a few situations of your own. Discuss these scenarios with your troops, especially the probies and new members who may be wearing one of these uniforms for the first time.
We are equivalent to walking billboards or advertisements when we wear our department/company T-shirts and jackets. As Chief Billy Goldfeder, deputy chief of the Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department, likes to point out, “We are like gangs wearing our colors!” Keep in mind when you throw on that T-shirt for the day that you are representing your department and the fire service. Your every action and behavior will stand out when you are wearing something with your fire department’s name on it. If you want to go the bar and have a good time, don’t wear your fire department T-shirt if you plan on getting “animated” or worse. Your actions while wearing your “colors” will come back to bite you and your department and in general will give a black eye to all firefighters. The headline will say “Volunteer Firefighter (or Firefighter) Arrested for Brawl in Local Tavern.” A worse scenario would be getting arrested for driving under the influence/while intoxicated.
Be mindful of your actions while driving your personal vehicle. The various fire department stickers on your windows, special firefighter license plates, and one blue light displayed on your dashboard make your vehicle stand out. This is also a form of your civilian uniform when viewed by the public. Drive recklessly or have a moment of road rage, and guess what your fellow motorists will be thinking. Like it or not, these actions are what people notice and remember.
Keep in mind that a blue light or other warning signal does not give you the right to break the vehicle traffic laws of your state. These lights are called “courtesy” lights for a reason. Your fellow motorists do not have to move over for you when you are coming down the road. Driving up to their rear bumper and honking your horn creates an image problem for you and your department. Anyone who has served as a chief officer in a volunteer department with a home response system has probably received a complaint or two from a civilian concerning the driving of one of the department members while responding to an alarm. Maybe the chief received a call from the local police explaining that they let off one of the department members for a driving infraction and that this was the last time this courtesy would be extended.
Your every action can draw attention and anger other people. Just because you are a member of a fire department and display a special window sticker, Firefighter on Duty placard, or courtesy light does not give you the right to park in front of a fire hydrant or in the fire zone while picking up your pizza. People notice these actions. John Q. Public has to park a block away and run in the pouring rain to pick up his pizza.
As a side note to chiefs who have a vehicle for personal use, it’s not a good idea to be parked in a sports stadium parking lot tailgating on a football Sunday using your command board as a table for Italian sausages and bratwurst and replacing the command post flag with the home team’s flag.
I take pride in putting on my dress uniform for occasions such as promotions, installation/recognition ceremonies, and positive public relations events and parades, but it is also worn for firefighter funerals. A firefighter’s life can be very stressful. We play hard, and we party hard, but there is a time and a place for blowing off steam. If you are doing this in your department dress uniform, it may not be the right time or the right place.
Let’s discuss the issue of alcohol. If you are going to have a drink in uniform, you had better plan for a designated driver, if needed, for yourself or your group and conduct yourself as a responsible adult. I have seen more video clips of firefighters in uniform drunk, fighting, and acting improperly than I care to remember-Saint Patrick’s Day parades, block parties, funerals, and truck dedications seem to spawn this behavior from time to time. Remember, all those social media eyes are out there waiting to scoop the next great viral Internet sensation. Chief officers and company officers must not allow bad behavior to happen at one of these functions. Departments should have guidelines in place as to what can and cannot take place while in a department-issued dress uniform. Some departments have a set time limit as to how long the uniform should be worn after an event is over.
Besides your actions in the uniform, how about respecting the uniform itself? One of my pet peeves as a chief was noticing a dress uniform jacket or hat hanging on an individual’s gear rack. It happens: You come back from a funeral or some other event and take off your dress jacket to unwind, or an alarm comes in and you hang up your clothing. The problem arises when you forget to remove it when you leave the station or are just too lazy to take it home with you. There is no excuse for items from your dress uniform to be sitting in the firehouse gear rack. Bring them home. Treat the uniform with respect; you’ve earned it.
This is our most identifiable uniform and represents our most important image. Whether we’re in black or tan gear or in leather or plastic helmets, this is the one uniform we wear when all eyes are on us. People intentionally gather to watch and to take pictures and videos of the action. I sometimes imagine what it would have been like if we had today’s technology back in the 1800s when volunteer firefighters would actually fist fight and cut each other’s hoses from hydrants to be the first company with water on the fire. Thank goodness that competition between companies today does not result in fisticuffs at the scene of a fire, but every so often you hear about something like this occurring.
More likely, it’s a verbal argument that will unfold. It may be between individuals, companies, or agencies like the fire and police departments. We have all seen these images. I don’t need to go deeper into this situation. It should not happen at any time but especially not when an emergency is unfolding and people, on one of the worst days of their lives, are depending on you to make everything in their world OK again.
Line officers and supervisors have to set the example. Your troops will follow your lead in a situation like this. Stay calm and level headed, get the job done, and deal with whatever problem you may have after the incident is completed.
Besides our main goal of saving life, we also took an oath to save property. Salvage tactics seem to be a lost art in some fire departments. It seems insurance companies would rather just cut a check. This may be fine for commercial establishments, but no check can cover the loss of destroyed photos and other irreplaceable personal items in a residential house fire. We should always try to safeguard personal property when we can. During overhaul, focus on accomplishing this. At times, as much damage is caused during this stage of the operation as is caused by the fire. People will notice the care you take to safeguard their belongings from water damage by using tarps and runners. They will also notice needless damage done to their home and possessions.
Some interesting stories have been circulated about overhaul, such as tossing things out the window while overhauling. Let’s keep in mind that this family’s world has just gone up in flames and all or most of their worldly possessions may have been destroyed. How we handle certain personal belongings, such as religious items, during this stage are very important. Don’t be quick to toss them out a window. People are watching and may be taking photos and videos. It’s easy to get caught up in the adrenaline rush of the moment.
Also be mindful of profane or abusive language while operating within earshot of the public. It may seem like a little thing, but the public does have higher expectations of us, especially while we are performing our duties on the fireground.
Have you considered that we can disrespect our fellow firefighters, the public, ourselves, and our families while in turnout gear when we lack efficiency and competence? For volunteers, this deficit is often the result of discontinuing learning and not taking our training seriously. There is always something to critique in an incident. Many of us conduct our own “critique” of the operations that went down. We pick up on certain aspects the average civilian will not pick up on. But sometimes you see a video in which the department appears to be having its worst day of existence or simply doesn’t have a clue. The mistakes are so obvious that even someone with no firefighting knowledge could see something went seriously wrong.
The problem most likely could be attributed to the lack of proper training or no training at all. For many departments, it may be that they just can’t get the money to train adequately. In other cases, training stopped because of an internal problem. You have an obligation to your fellow firefighters and your family, who depend on you. They trust that you are doing your job to the best of your abilities so everyone can go home safe. The public expects a certain level of dependable professional service. You must train.
Moreover, a firefighter is never really fully trained. There is always something more to learn. Research ways to train without spending much money. Consult the Internet, the industry associations, the National Fire Academy, the U.S. Fire Administration, and other fire departments for starters. Read the fire service magazines and become familiar with their Web sites. Build training props using talent you may already have in your department ranks such as carpenters, electricians, steam fitters, and architects.
What better way to honor those who may be “in your hat” than to do your job with honor and integrity no matter what uniform you may be wearing at the time?
MICHAEL P. CAPOZIELLO is a 29-year member and a former chief of the Elmont (NY) Fire Department. He is also a department training officer, a public information officer, and an historian. He is also a supervising dispatcher at Nassau County (NY) Fire Communications FIRECOM and a training officer on the fieldcom unit. He has served as a member of the Nassau County fire service critical incident stress management team for 13 years. He writes a monthly column for the Web magazine “Long Island Fire Department Rant News.”
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